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Monday, February 27, 2006
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Edition: UtahValley
Page: B07

USU system might have averted disaster

By Joe Bauman
Deseret Morning News

    If the Philippine government had used landslide prediction software like the freely distributed system called SINMAP developed by Utah State University experts, maybe the village of Guinsaugon would not have been devastated.
   "It's hard to shut down schools and neighborhoods and relocate them in different parts of the landscape," said Robert T. Pack, associate professor at USU and one of the program's developers. "But obviously, they would have been smart to do it in this case."
   Instead, around 1,000 or more were killed Feb. 17 when a gigantic mudslide slammed into the village on Leyte Island, destroying the town and burying an elementary school.
   Another way to prevent loss of life would be to use the system to find vulnerable areas and prevent development there, he said.
   SINMAP — which stands for Stability Index Mapping — is available free on the Internet.
   Pack, a geological engineer, noted that he and David Tarboton, professor and hydrologist at USU, have worked together for about eight years on the system. They started on contract with the government of British Columbia, preparing software methods and other tools "that would allow us to better predict at a regional scale the likelihood of landslides occurring."
   After two years of work, the SINMAP toolbox was ready. "We applied it to a number of real-life areas up in western Canada and got astoundingly good results," he said.
   The program can study factors about the terrain and predict what would happen "in cases of heavy rainfall or heavy snowmelt." In vulnerable areas, precipitation can trigger landslide and mudflows.
   The mudflows have a "wet, concrete-like consistency." They can roar through a creek "and then spit out the canyon mouth into whatever's in the way," Pack said.
   Many Utah areas have been hit by mudflows emerging from canyons. In some cases he studied, homeowners did not realize their houses are built on alluvial sand that swept out of canyons as mud.
   "We can use our tools and the data that's available . . . and run these models against the typography and the shape and the geomorphology of the canyon" and predict the likelihood of dangerous slides and mudflows.
   SINMAP examines the shape of a watershed or hillside and calculates how it will concentrate water from rain or a snowmelt.
   It shows "how it would flow into hollows or gullies that would cause more saturation of the soil, and would make a landslide more likely to occur," he said. "And, of course, the steeper the slopes are, the more likely things are to slide — up to a point."
   That point is reached when slopes are so steep that they become rocky cliffs, which can be more stable.
   "We posted it on the Web and made it available to the geological engineering community at large," Pack added. The site to download SINMAP is hydrology.neng.usu.edu/sinmap.
   "It's now very popular worldwide. We have had this model serve as the basis for studies" from the Himalayas to the Alps, from the Andes to the South Pacific and across North America.
   Does he regret that the system is available free and not making money for the developers?
   "No, not at all," he said.
   A purpose of a university is to disseminate useful knowledge. Also, he said, a small amount of money comes in from "people who are excited about it," allowing the developers to update the system.
   "But we pretty much support it out of our own free time and keep it going."
   Recently, they updated it to work with certain geographic information software.
   Several students from other countries were so impressed with Pack's and Tarboton's expertise in the area that they came to USU to work with them and study the system.
   "We have a lot of fun with it," Pack said.
   However, he is saddened to learn about disasters, like the Guinsaugon mudslide, that might have been avoided.
   People need to be aware of nature's potential for harm. They need to ask the hard questions and put time into "discovering how vulnerable villages like that are," he said.
   In the Philippines, "big disasters, unfortunately, aren't uncommon."
   Pack said he would love it if the Philippine government "would commission a study or two and use tools like we've developed, to get some insight into the magnitude of the problems."


E-mail: bau@desnews.com


Words: 781
Section: Local

Additional caption: One-year-old Mardi Gador sleeps while her grandfather, Luis Odtoham, keeps watch at a hospital in Anahawan, Philippines, Saturday after fleeing recent mudslides. USU's free SINMAP system predicts slides.
Credit: Lucy Pemoni, Associated Press
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